Column: From Strange and Distant Shores: The Orphanage

By Orrin Grey

orphanageThe Orphanage (2007). Director: Juan Antonio Bayona. Cast: Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep, Geraldine Chaplin. Country: Spain.

Speaking of great Spanish horror films…

The Orphanage first came to my attention when Guillermo del Toro attached himself to it as producer. I’m an outspoken fan of del Toro, and his name anywhere near a product basically guarantees that I’ll see it. In the case of The Orphanage, the draw of del Toro’s involvement was enhanced by a lot of very positive early buzz, and I was lucky enough to catch the movie at a preview screening during its theatrical run.

The Orphanage is a deceptively-simple ghost story of a kind that we rarely see in movies anymore, one that I’d say probably owes as much to Henry James as it does to M.R. James. The emotions on display are subtle and striking, especially from lead actress Belen Rueda. It’s also unexpectedly creepy, relying on the build-up of slow dread rather than limiting itself purely to jump scares.

The story follows Laura (Belen Rueda) as she moves back into the orphanage where she grew up, along with her husband and young son. Soon after their arrival, her son Simon starts talking with “imaginary friends”, which any veteran of ghost stories can tell you is a very bad sign, but it isn’t until Simon mysteriously vanishes that the hauntings really get underway.

The emotion and subtlety of The Orphanage have been often (and justly) celebrated by other writers, but what gets mentioned less frequently is how inherently Gothic the proceedings are. The titular antique orphanage is a perfect location for a Gothic adventure, situated on a rocky promontory complete with an abandoned lighthouse and a smuggler’s cave. There are hidden rooms, buried secrets and past crimes that have a direct and terrible impact on the present.

Anytime things threaten to get too old-fashioned, though, there’s a modernizing touch, like the grief counseling group or the wonderfully-contemporary ghost hunters (highlighted by Geraldine Chaplin in a great-but-unfortunately-brief performance as a psychic), that reminds us that the movie is not quite the one that we may have come to expect. But, for the most part, The Orphanage is content to be a textbook Gothic ghost story about the pull of grief and the inescapability of the past, told with such a deft touch by director Juan Antonio Bayona that the traditional never feels outdated.

You can purchase The Orphanage through